“Three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha
Beside a wide glass jar were two stacks of 4×6 cards in white and red. On a piece of paper was a quote on truth by Buddha and a written invitation. The instructions read: We invite you to share your truth. Unburden your soul. Blow the dust off a painful secret; trusting us to hold it for you. Write on red if you are ok with us discussing it. Write on white if you do not want your thoughts shared.”
The event was for adults who were there to listen to inspiring true stories of perseverance. In the back of the room, sitting quietly on the floor waiting for their parents to be done, were a few girls who were about middle school in age. Toward the end of the event, one of the red cards was randomly selected, read aloud and discussed by the speakers and the audience together.
The conversations that day were raw and vulnerable. It was with an abundant amount of awe that I witnessed total strangers willingly walk to the water’s edge of the universal pool of emotion, shed all pretense and step into the deep end.
Surprising Truths from a Young One
It wasn’t until after I was home placing the wide glass jar back on its shelf did I take the time to read the rest of the truths that had been placed in the jar that afternoon.
Written on red were: How do I trust someone I’m supposed to trust, but don’t? My family is moving and I don’t want to go and I’m scared to be myself in school.
The last one was written on red but noted: (supposed to be on white), meaning they didn’t want to talk about it.
The handwriting gave them immediately away, of course. It didn’t have the assurance of the others whose styles were more defined. No, this handwriting was clearly the work of the girls in the back of the room. At some point in the event they had taken the time to earnestly write what was on their mind. And it floored me: Their vulnerability. Their honesty. Their need.
What We Might Not Hear as Parents
It was a slap in the face and a stunning reminder that underneath the patent question and answer of “how was school today, honey?” and “fine, mom” lies an undercurrent of emotions disproportionally enormous and strong and ready to pull them under at any time.
It caused me to reflect for several days. I wasn’t having these big conversations with my own 11-year-old girl. I was not diving deep enough. Sure, I noticed that she had drifted away from some of the girls she hung out with in fifth grade and she often walked alone to the car. But I attributed that to the fact that she wasn’t yet interested in makeup or the latest hairstyles like her peers so clearly were.
Plus, like all parents strive to do, her Dad and I had worked so hard to plant seeds that we hoped would blossom into self-esteem all of her life: You are capable. You are strong. Persevere! You can do anything; accomplish anything you set your mind to. You are worthy. And my personal favorite: Body’s come in all shapes and sizes. I thought I was sending her off to school ready for anything. If there was one thing I understood early on as a mom, it was that my daughter needed solid roots if I wanted her to fly. Roots so deep that she could sustain a storm without being blown over.
Then I remembered the story shared that very day of the event; the one of a daughter who took her own life at the age of 16. And the one of another daughter who tried at the age of 13. I found myself researching and stumbling upon some brutal truths: The suicide rate among youngsters ages 10 to 14 has been steadily rising, and doubled in the U.S. from 2007 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I would encourage parents of children in middle school parents to please read this NPR article Nov 4 2016 and this: Mental Health in Schools: a crisis affecting millions of students.
All of this forced me to admit an ugly truth of my own: I was living in a blissful bubble not acknowledging how tough the battle of middle school can be. Every. Single. Day. One word, one glance, one secret whispered behind the back of another – any of these can uproot in an instant the work her father and I have done for ten years.
I’d long forgotten how it felt when other’s bodies matured faster than yours – the ones who inevitably (and most likely unwillingly) were thrust into the spotlight to be adored and followed by boys and girls alike. When others with an outgoing personality seemed so confident and comfortable in their skin and how that can make you feel small or less than.
In reality, everyone is just trying on new personas; encouraged, inspired or influenced by their parents or the media. None of us knows who we are in middle school, do we? And yet this is when the labeling by others begins. Labeling that erases each and every empowering word you planted in your child; and renders the soothing comfort you try to give in the aftermath so shallow because you just don’t understand.
Middle school is a pack and the mentality of the pack is all about survival, not unlike out in the wild. Those safe and accepted within the pack are protected. Those on the fray are vulnerable to attacks. Granted any attack at that age is tough. You probably remember who attacked you just like our kid’s memory banks are being permanently etched with their battle scars right now. Yet these days, the attacks are more brutal; more brazen. There are likely many reasons, not the least of which is social media and media in general.
In a candid conversation with a middle school counselor, I asked, “What’s missing for our kids?” Her response was one word: Empathy.
I don’t have all the answers. But I have a lot more questions. For the 11-year-old girl who wrote, “I’m scared to be myself in school.” The one who didn’t want to talk about it. You see, that was my daughter. And I’m going to peel back the layers until we both come face-to-face with her fears; piecing her back together with perhaps some new buoys of identity she can hold onto when the waters get rough.
Then I’m going to focus on strengthening those roots with a new passion. So she can fly higher than the majestic redwoods we both love so much.
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